Starting a Vegetable Garden

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How do you start a vegetable garden?

Stick something in the ground and see what happens.

That’s it, you ask? That’s the best advice I’ve got? Why should you even keep reading?

Because I have stuck a LOT of stuff into the ground without education, without planning, without soil testing, without amending the soil, without even knowing what the heck the seed I was planting was going to look like when it came up, or what I was supposed to do with it when it did.

But stuff grew. And I ate well.

And along the way, I’ve learned a few things.

I learned to recognize my yard’s indigenous weeds. I learned that vegetable plants bloom. And not just the obvious ones like tomatoes and squash, either, but sweet potato vines and potato plants, onions and lettuce. I learned how to start seeds indoors. I learned to see and appreciate insects and flowers and birds that I never used to notice. I learned that some insects are trouble in the garden and I learned why. I learned to cook, eat and love vegetables that I had never bought before in my life. I learned that I have the power to provide healthy, organic produce for my family at a low cost. And I learned that doing so provides me with a great and ongoing sense of satisfaction. I have gained both confidence and courage through gardening.

I started with nothing but a shovel, a seed, and a dream – and so can you.

Growing your own food doesn’t have to be overwhelming or intimidating. Anyone can grow. You have the right to stick a seed into the ground by virtue of being human – no experience or education required. So what are you waiting for?

Here is my 7-step guide to starting your first garden. For information on specific, easy-to-grow vegetables, check out this page. 

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Step 1: Decide where your garden is going to be.

Most of the vegetables you’ll probably be growing are going to require “full sun”. This means that they’ll need at least six hours of direct sunlight every day. You can’t go wrong picking a spot that is always sunny. If your ideal garden spot isn’t that obvious, then you may need to observe how the sunlight moves around your property for a few days, and select the spot that gets the most sunlight. As time goes on you can also experiment with different varieties of the vegetables you want to grow. Some varieties will tolerate less light than others. Above all, remember that in the garden, everything is an experiment. If you’re not sure if your selected garden spot will be good for tomatoes, there’s only one way to find out. Stick them in the ground and see what happens.

Step 2: Prepare the garden space.

If you are fortunate enough to have a piece of dirt at your disposal, dig it up. You don’t have to dig deeply. One shovel’s depth is enough. The goal here is not to remove the soil. It’s to get rid of undesirable plants (grass and weeds) and to loosen the soil. My experience has been that if you are putting your garden somewhere where grass has been growing, that grass – and not weeds – will be your biggest enemy. Your only hope is to dig the grass up and get it out of there, roots and all. Shake the clumps of turf, leaving as much top soil in your soon-to-be garden spot as you can, and toss the grass and roots out of there. Do your best to get any earthworms you accidentally dig up back into your garden soil. Just drop them on the dirt. They’ll do the rest.

Start small. My first garden was four feet by eight feet, which seems like a good starting size to me. Do what you think is best, and remember that your garden can grow with your experience and enthusiasm.

Some people might advise you to till the ground and leave the tilled-up grass to decompose and feed the soil. Theoretically this sounds good. But it has never worked for me. I waged an exhausting war on grass – not weeds – for years, until I finally pulled it all up, roots and all, and got it the heck out of my garden.

Lasagna gardening and “weedless gardening” are also very popular. I’ve tried them both, and while they worked at first, the grass continued to return until last year I finally dug it out by the roots. It still pops back up, but not so much that I can’t pull it up with the weeds. Do yourself a favor, and lose the grass from the get-go.

Consider putting some kind of edge or barrier around your garden spot, as the grass will continue to try to creep back in.

Almost all of my gardening has been done directly in the ground. I also have some raised beds. Gardening in raised beds isn’t that different, except that you have to add soil, compost, etc. to fill up the box. If you will be building raised beds for the first time, I refer you to this video from John at Growing Your Greens. I have little experience with containers. However, this video, also from Growing Your Greens will help you get started if you don’t want to dig up your yard, or don’t have a yard to dig up.

Step 3: Get an all-in-one pH, moisture and light meter.

This is an all-in-one tool. See the image on the right side of this page. You can buy these for a few bucks. Plants need sunlight, water and nutrients, and they need to be growing in soil that is the right pH. You can only control the sunlight so much, by planting them somewhere where they’re likely get sun in the first place. Nutrients you will learn as you go. pH we’ll talk about in a minute. But water you want to figure out quick.

Your plants will tell you when they’re thirsty – their leaves will wilt. But generally, it’s like they say with humans, by the time you feel thirst you’re already dehydrated, and some plants don’t recover from not getting enough regular water. For example, cucumbers can become bitter if they go too long without receiving water, even if you suddenly realize they’re unhappy and start watering them regularly. It’s much better for your plants if you set the meter to moisture and stick it in the ground every few days to see what’s going on down around the roots. Ideally the meter should read “moist”. If it says “dry” then you definitely need to water. Try to water right at the soil line, so the water seeps down to the roots. If the meter reads “wet” then you’ve watered too much. That said, a) you can’t control when it rains, and b) individual plants have their own water requirements. For example, some plants like to dry out before they’re watered again. See the growing pages of individual vegetables for more on this (you can find my growing pages in the drop down menu under Easiest Vegetables to Grow in the menu above).

Step 4: Check the pH of your soil.

Set the meter to pH and stick it in the ground at various places around where you intend to plant, and check the pH of the soil. The pH scale goes from 0 to 14. A soil with a pH 7 is considered neutral. The smaller the number, the more acidic your soil. The larger the number, the more alkaline your soil. Some plants prefer more acidic soils (like blueberries). Most things will do fine between 5.0 and 7.0. Keep this in mind when deciding what to grow. If your soil has an extremely high or an extremely low pH, it is possible to raise or lower your soil pH by adding things to it. Additionally, adding organic matter to your soil (like compost) will tend to bring your soil closer to neutral from either extreme. I mention pH here because if you plant something that requires a very low pH (like blueberries, which prefer a pH of 4.09 to 5.0) in soil with a pH of 7, your blueberry bush will die. Trust me, I’ve done this. A little bit of knowledge, like understanding the pH of your soil, can go a long way towards ensuring your garden will be a success.

All of my growing pages include the ideal pH for each plant. I have been able to achieve great results with individual vegetables by tweaking the pH of the soil where I planted them.

That said, if science makes your head spin, never forget the mantra: Stick something in the ground and see what happens.

Step 5: Decide what you are going to grow.

My advice is to check out your local planting dates for things in your area. What time of year are you reading this? What can you grow right now? Your local university agricultural extension service will not only give you a long list of things that it is possible to grow in your area, they’ll also tell you when to plant in spring and in fall, and how far apart and how deep to plant seeds.

Another way to go is to go to your local nursery and see what kinds of plants they’re selling. If you see something you like, take it home. Stick it in the ground. See what happens.

And don’t shy away from things that are unfamiliar to you. You never know what you might grow to love. My experience has been that if I grow it, I find ways to eat it and enjoy it. This has radically changed my diet for the better.

I recommend that you plant things which are season appropriate, commonly grown in your area, and likely to do well given the pH of your soil and the light available in your garden. All the vegetables discussed on this site are fairly easy to grow.

Step 6: Get some transplants.

Some things grow very easily from seed. However, it’s a great idea when you’re first getting started to get transplants for your tomatoes, peppers, herbs, broccoli, or whatever else sparks your imagination when you’re strolling through your local nursery. The main reason that I recommend this is for morale. When you’re starting your first garden, it really helps to see healthy plants out there right from the get go. However, don’t feel like you have to buy transplants. I have had tomatoes, peppers, cabbages and broccoli all come up quite satisfactorily from seed.

Step 7: Stick some seeds in the ground.

There are a lot of things which are just not worth buying transplants for. They grow too easily from seed. Squash, cucumbers, beans, basil, turnips, beets, chard, spinach, lettuce, all come immediately to mind. I have gone through the trouble of starting cucurbits (the squash/cucumber family) inside and setting out 6-week-old plants in the garden at the beginning of May, only to find that the seeds I also planted directly into the soil at that time very quickly caught up with the transplants.

Follow the directions on my growing pages (see the drop-down menu under Easiest Vegetables to Grow) for specific instructions on planting seeds, or refer to your seed packet.

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If you follow the seven steps above, you’ll be off to a good start. My approach after this point is to learn things as you need to learn them. If a crop gets infested with bugs and doesn’t do well, find out what they are and what you can do about it. Your experiences will be specific to the micro-climate of you back yard (or deck, or fire escape, etc.). They will guide you to the knowledge that you need, and will give you the impetus to learn it. If you set yourself up for a few successes, you’ll want to do more, and to learn more.

Your gardening know-how will happen gradually and naturally, kind of like how you learn to become a parent. At first you bring home your newborn, holding it anxiously like it’s an expensive piece of crystal you’re afraid to drop. You don’t know the first thing about what to do with it. So what do you do? You love it, and feed it, and change its diapers. You work on instinct. When you’re nursing your newborn, you don’t worry about potty training, or where she will go to school, or whether or not she will have friends, or how on earth you’re ever going to survive the agony of anxiety that’s bound to descend upon you when she gets to high school and starts dating.

This is what I’m saying: don’t get ahead of yourself.

Dig up some dirt in your back yard, stick something in the ground and see what happens. I can guarantee you that one thing will happen.

It’ll change your life.

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